WASHINGTON — Since 2010, the National Security Agency has been exploiting its huge collections of data to create sophisticated graphs of some Americans' social connections that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information, the New York Times reported Saturday, citing newly disclosed documents and interviews with unnamed officials.
The spy agency began allowing the analysis of phone call and email logs in November 2010 to examine Americans' networks of associations for foreign intelligence purposes after NSA officials lifted previous restrictions on the practice, according to documents provided by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor.
The policy shift was intended to help the agency "discover and track" connections between intelligence targets overseas and people in the United States, according to an NSA memorandum from January 2011.
The agency can augment communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data, according to the documents.
NSA officials declined to say how many Americans have been caught up in the effort, including people involved in no wrongdoing. The documents do not describe what has resulted from the scrutiny, which links phone numbers and emails in a "contact chain" tied directly or indirectly to a person or organization overseas that is of foreign intelligence interest.
The new disclosures add to the growing body of knowledge in recent months about the NSA's access to and use of private information concerning Americans, prompting lawmakers in Washington to call for reining in the agency and President Barack Obama to order an examination of its surveillance policies.
Almost everything about the agency's operations is hidden, and the decision to revise the limits concerning Americans was made in secret, without review by the nation's intelligence court or any public debate. As far back as 2006, a Justice Department memo warned of the potential for the "misuse" of such information without adequate safeguards.
An agency spokeswoman, asked about the analyses of Americans' data, said all data queries must include a foreign intelligence justification.